Ritter retires as superintendent

Sunday, June 29, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:06 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Long before Rock Bridge High School or Lange Middle School or Paxton Keeley Elementary School, Jim Ritter was almost talked out of education. You'll never make any money, people told him. Teaching just doesn't pay.

With those words of advice, Ritter entered MU in 1955 intending to become an accountant like his older brother, Jerry. Jim Ritter successfully made his way through several marketing and management classes, but something was missing.

At the end of his third year, when his brother was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers in St. Louis, Ritter left the business school and pursued his love of history, intending to teach. You won't make the money Jerry makes, his mother, Almeta Ritter, warned.

"Mama, I don't care," he answered. "I just want to get out of this and get into education."

By 1959, without teaching experience or certification, the 22-year-old Ritter was hired as a Hickman High School American history teacher. He'd been planning to take education courses that fall and work toward his teaching certificate, but a fortuitous opening and a phone call from Superintendent Neil Aslin landed him in the classroom with a week's notice.

Similar to most first-year teachers, Ritter's focus was on survival. However, he did more than survive. In the 44 years since that first day at Hickman, Ritter has continued to serve the district in many capacities, from classroom teacher to central-office administrator.

Monday, he'll retire from the district's highest administrative position -- superintendent. It's hard to envision the Columbia Public School District without Jim Ritter and even harder to believe he almost pursued a career other than education.

In the end, though, a series of business classes, a dean of students position at Northeast Missouri State University, now Truman State, and even an initial retirement in 1991 could not keep Ritter away from the district -- education and the Columbia School District seemed to be where he belonged.

Ritter's first years with the district, the years before the Vietnam War, were a time of innocence and participation, pep rallies and home games. Because Ritter was one of the youngest members of the staff, he sponsored dances and other activities for students.

"Gosh, I was excited about it," he said. "I just loved it from the first year. I liked the teaching, but what I liked most was the relationship with that age student. I was exhausted part of the time but really enjoyed it."

Ritter's mother, Almeta, has watched her son's career unfold from the first days of business school, through the promotions and now his second retirement. She has lived in Columbia since 1956 and frequently invites her son to her condo for lunch between his meetings and school commitments. She keeps a supply of his favorite deli cold cuts on hand.

They talk on the phone nearly every day. Through it all, she has kept a collection of news stories about her youngest boy and graciously accepts compliments from friends at church about his success.

"You can't miss him ‘cause he's in the paper every day," one told her.

Almeta Ritter has the articles to prove it.

Other newspaper clippings and accolades reside in Ritter's home. Ritter's wife of 25 years, Kathy, is assistant principal at Rock Bridge. She keeps a small selection of his many plaques displayed in an upstairs guest room -- plaques from civic organizations and charities that he has contributed to in some way. On Friday, she positioned Ritter's latest and most prestigious honor -- a silver cup from the Chamber of Commerce as Citizen of the Year -- on a family-room bookshelf.

A framed copy of a "Business Times" feature from Ritter's return to the central office in 1998 hangs in the basement. However, the basement is not a shrine to Ritter the educator but to Ritter the father. Sons Joe, 23, and Tim, 20, attend Westminster College, but when they return they'll enjoy the leather chairs, futon and wooden pool table that await them.

The room is usually quiet, except for the times when Joe and Tim are home on vacation or to do laundry and grab a snack. The days of after-school baseball, soccer games and summer leagues coached by dad are in the past.

In his Worley Street office, he keeps a team photo of Tim's all-star Little League team, which he coached in 1997, next to a baseball signed by every player. Ritter remembers putting his Hickman loyalty aside during the boys' high school years, when he joined Kathy in rooting for Rock Bridge sports.

"People forgave me for that," he said.

When the two schools compete, halfway through games Ritter will switch sides in the stands or sit directly in the middle.

"Whether it means anything or not, people notice it," he said.

Ritter's life outside of work focused on family and sports. When his coaching years ended and the boys went to college, there was a void.

"I really did feel it because we had spent so much time following the kids through all of their activities," he said.

Over time, the Ritters adjusted to the absence and used the extra space in their schedules for other things, such as dinners at Murry's, runs and bike rides on the trail and sometimes just a quiet night in front of the television. Both husband and wife keep busy with work-related responsibilities before, during and after business hours.

On an average week during the school year, the couple might have one unscheduled night to just sit back and watch television. The other days, the pair works to fit school and related commitments, meals, a workout routine and sleep into a 24-hour period.

When they do find time together at home, Kathy gets to see her husband's goofy side, a sense of humor that rarely shines at school board meetings. She remembers when a 3-or-4-year-old Joe would watch television wearing a baseball cap, cowboy hat or sometimes a pillow and put an unlit pipe in his mouth. Jim always liked to make the family laugh, so one day he joined in, and Kathy snapped a picture.

With retirement, Ritter will have more time to show that side – to wear shorts and sneakers rather than a suit and tie. He's eager to visit his daughter, Julie Collier, 34, his oldest and from a previous marriage, and her children, Brett, 7, and Annie, 2½, in Carthage. He'll have the chance to pursue new hobbies. Kathy hopes he'll expand his cooking repertoire beyond sandwiches and frozen pizza.

Tuesday morning, Ritter will not walk into his office on Worley Street because he won't have an office. Instead, Phyllis Chase will occupy the seat that Jim Ritter had filled for the past five years. But that doesn't mean Ritter will stop caring or stop educating. In the fall, high school athletic schedules will remain posted on the Ritter's refrigerator. It's partly because Kathy will continue her work and involvement at Rock Bridge, but partly because Jim takes pride in the accomplishments of his students.

Jim Ritter will walk out of his office and out of the constant public eye Monday, but he'll be around. Maybe you'll see him at Murry's one night. Or maybe you'll catch him in the stands at the Rock Bridge-Hickman football game because that's what he loves -- family, community, sports and education.

"That's him in a nutshell," Kathy said.

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